With a lot of writing assignments due in the upcoming months, I have been going through different style guides and manuals from Strunk & White to Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Beneath all the instruction on spelling, the Oxford comma, paragraph structure, active vs passive voice, avoiding garden paths (sentences that cause the reader to backtrack), getting rid of needless words, taunting academese, and fretting over nonissues such as “focused” vs “focussed”, there is the underlying purpose to make text accessible to the reader. The nature of this kind of accessibility is captured tentatively in this snippet from The Elements of Typographic Style (which coincidentally describes the etymology of the word “text” itself):
An ancient metaphor: thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns – but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.
There is certainly something appealing about encoding your thoughts in such a way that the thread makes an even texture, and keeping the analogy in mind the next time I face the dilemma between a colon and a dash should help to focus on the big picture.
As an aside, a similar idea of a “knitted castle” was used by Rich Hickey in his talk Simple Made Easy to warn developers against threading too tightly (“tossing the loom”):
[…] are you programming with a loom? You know, you’re having a great time. You’re throwing that shuttle back and forth. And what’s coming out the other side is this knotted, you know, mess. I mean it may look pretty, but you have this problem. Right? What is the problem? The problem is the knitted castle problem.
To be clear, Hickey is not telling developers to weave more elegantly here; when building a castle, he would rather not weave at all and just go for Legos. Prose and code obviously differ in what makes them accessible, not least because one is static and the other dynamic in time (hence the Lego blocks for easier reshuffling). Still, both encode human thought, and, even if only as a provocative exercise, it might be interesting to pull the thread (pun intended) and think about whether the same high-level principles apply to coding that do to writing: unambiguous connections, logical continuity, engaging storytelling.
Here is a list of all the resources I’ve found useful when thinking about accessible writing:
Writing in the Sciences is a free Stanford online course that tackles the specifics of academic writing. It consists of two major parts: how to write well, and how to write to get published. Each lecture presents a few useful items that together form a practical checklist of what to avoid to make your writing better. Instead of trying to be brilliant immediately, avoiding common pitfalls could be a simpler first step towards developing a good personal style!
The Elements of Typographic Style is hardly a guide on writing well, but I consider it a valuable resource when it comes to the specific question about accessibility. Beyond practical accessibility, there is also the concern that text can surely never be perceived in isolation from its presentation, so the way it is typeset must have some impact on the stance the reader takes on it; here, the book serves as a source of inspiration.
The 2004 hardcover edition, by the way, looks and feels stunning, so much so that you would think it is strictly a display book. In reality I have been using my copy as a reference for several years, but without margin scribbles or dog-ears it takes me a fair bit of time to find anything!
The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker will make you think in tree structures. And, according to Pinker, this is just the way to think about your writing if you want it to make unambiguous sense. What I love most about this book is that in no way does Pinker present just another list of rules that we should blindly follow. Yes, he does come up with his own list of dos and don’ts which he is “prepared to try to dissuade you from using in their nonstandard senses”, but a later statement he makes sums up very well why it is necessary to keep some rules to a higher standard despite the generic indetermination that characterises English usage:
Still, a few common errors are so uncontroversial … that they have become tantamount to the confession “I am illiterate,” and no writer should be caught making them. As I mentioned, the problem with these errors is not that they betray an absence of logical thinking but that they betray a history of inattention to the printed page.
Full disclosure: Pinker’s book may have made me unreasonably giddy. Rachael Cayley’s thoughtful review adds justified criticisms to the praise.
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read one complements Pinker’s practical guide in a way that focuses more on style, and attempts to teach the reader to recognise and produce sentences that are not only structurally sound, but a pleasure to read. I’m not convinced that good style can be acquired through learning alone. Still, the abundance of example passages presented that leverage one stylistic device or another will at the least encourage more mindful reading, creating more opportunities for picking up effective techniques through conscious or subconscious copying.
The Elements of Style is the classic early 20th century reference book (or should I say booklet?) for correct writing. Pinker and other authors suggest that this guide be taken with a grain of salt: not only is it out of date, but strictly following all of the rules within is a recipe for making any writing bland. When it comes to looking up specific grammar or spelling rules, though, it is a good resource.
About Elise Hein
I’m a software engineer building products for medical research at London-based Ctrl Group. Previously, I worked on personal digital branding at MOO, and researched development practices at UCL for my master's degree in HCI.